Margaret Brown: Descendant (2022) | feature image
Emmett Lewis in Descendant (2022) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Participant.

Sundance 2022: ‘Descendant’ and the Americans Who Refuse to Be Forgotten

Descendant films the stories from the progeny of the slaves of the Clotilda. The result is a testament to the spirit of a community that refuses to disappear.

Margaret Brown
20 January 2022 (Sundance)

Imagine your only confirmed links to the past were the stories passed along by your elders: there are no written records, no deeds, no passports. Now imagine the recovery of a hidden artifact, lost 150 years ago, that finally provides a physical link to your ancestry.

Descendant is the story of the journey, destruction, and recovery of the Clotilda, the last known ship to transport African citizens to the Americas to be enslaved. Director Margaret Brown films the stories from the progeny of the slaves of the Clotilda, both before and after its recovery in 2019. The result is a testament to the spirit of a community that refused to disappear, even when America forgot them.

In 1860, Alabama landowner Timothy Meaher bet he could smuggle a ship full of enslaved people into Mobile, despite the slave trade being abolished in 1808. He succeeded, smuggling over 100 souls to American shores. The boat, named the Clotilda, was then burned and sunk to conceal the crime. With it went any known record of the individuals smuggled aboard. The survivors began a 150-year quest to find and maintain their identity.

We mingle with experts determined to find the wreck and speak with locals of Africatown, where Clotilda’s ancestors settled. Both groups are fully invested in finding some sense of closure. “The truth is in the bits and pieces,” a researcher says. He might as well be referring to the families fractured by the slave trade. The shame involved with the slave trade runs deep, so deep that with over 40,000 voyages confirmed, only five to six vessels have been recovered.

A new community thrived in Africatown, thanks to the tireless efforts of its storytellers. For over 100 years, people passed along these stories to preserve what transpired in their past and what was hidden from them. The most famous of these folklorists was Cudjo Lewis (Oluale Kossola), the last known survivor of the Clotilda. Descendant features incredible video footage of Lewis from 1928, shot by the first black female filmmaker, Zora Neale Hurston. Watching this footage is like entering a time machine; your heart rejoices for Lewis’ resilience but aches for all the suffering he endured.

When the Clotilda was finally recovered in 2019, you could almost hear an entire community sigh with relief. Their quest for closure is over, but their work for survival and legacy continues. Industry sprawls around the descendants, with factories belching smoke into the sky and leaking waste into the waterways. Ironically, most of these factories sit on land owned by the Meaher family. The same family whose ancestors once enslaved the community’s people now poisons the very air they breathe. When residents successfully sued a paper company for pollution violations, most plaintiffs received compensation checks of only $200.

Descendant captures the collective strength of a community that refuses to be forgotten. It also underscores how far America must go to make amends for its past sins. The Clotilda stands as the most intact slave ship ever recovered. It’s a suitable metaphor for the unbreakable spirit of its passengers.

RATING 8 / 10